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Jane Stanford with baby Leland Jr.
Jane Stanford (with baby Leland Jr.) had new ideas about whom higher education should serve.

Newsletter's name honors how innovation at Stanford is rooted in historic commitment to accessibility and equity

By Matthew Rascoff

Welcome to the first issue of New Lines, the newsletter of Stanford Digital Education. 

In her 1904 address to the Board of Trustees Jane Stanford said, “Let us not be afraid to outgrow old thoughts and ways, and dare to think on new lines as to the future of the work under our care.”

Thinking on new lines is a responsibility we take seriously. 

Stanford is known worldwide as a center of innovation. But the origins of that reputation extend earlier than the post-WWII Silicon Valley era, when Stanford incubated many of the most influential modern technologies.

In fact, Stanford’s culture of innovation dates to its very beginnings in the late 19th century. And its innovations were as much about whom it served as they were about its inventions.

In a period when most universities excluded female students Stanford was co-ed from the beginning (even if the number of female students was later limited). And while its Northeastern counterparts trained the sons of the urban elites, Stanford, with free tuition, was dedicated to lifting students of modest backgrounds into lives of opportunity. 

From the beginning the university created a “special” student category for older, working learners who had not attended preparatory high schools. Special students made up 25 percent of the founding student body. “Critics in the press belittle[d] this effort as lowering standards too far, but supporters praise[d] Stanford’s willingness to recognize that lack of earlier opportunities should not be a ‘fatal disqualification’.” (A Chronology of Stanford University and its Founders, Stanford Historical Society, 2001, p. 18). 

Stanford’s purposeful roots should be nurtured. But as Jane Stanford said, we should also not be afraid to adapt to new circumstances — to graft new ideas onto older rootstocks, to hybridize and even to plant new seeds when necessary. Our challenge is to foster educational innovations that look to the future without losing sight of history.

Launched last fall, Stanford Digital Education seeks to harness the university’s technological and human expertise to create new opportunities for learning, particularly for those who face obstacles  to pursuing higher education. Our first pilot allowed more than 200 students at 15 low-income high schools nationwide to complete Stanford’s introductory computer science class, opening the door to our working in 2022 with even more Title 1 high schools and developing more courses. Additionally, we are exploring how Stanford can better serve the educational needs of adults who lack post-secondary degrees, contributing to a recent report on this subject for the National Science Foundation while  helping to lead a new university-wide initiative to develop programs to support working learners. And our team is also examining Stanford’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, looking to draw lessons on how to make the university’s education more accessible and impactful in the future.

We recognize that other universities are engaged in similar work and that we can all grow by working together. To help our community collectively rise to this challenge, Stanford Digital Education has co-organized a national book talk series, “Academic Innovation for the Public Good,” which brings cutting-edge scholarship to inform the conversation about how to build a more just, equitable, and resilient future for higher education. The series features authors of recent books on higher education in monthly interviews with thoughtful interlocutors. The events are syndicated nationally on Zoom with co-sponsorships from colleagues at colleges and universities across the country. 

Our upcoming event on February 23 features What Universities Owe Democracy, a new book co-authored by Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University. He will be in conversation with Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College. Registration is free and open to the public here

We hope you will join us for the book talks, as a subscriber to New Lines, and as fellow caretakers of the garden of educational innovation. 

Matthew Rascoff is vice provost for digital education at Stanford. 

To read the Winter 2022 edition of New Lines, please visit here.